Libya / Bir Hakeim; was it really important?

Discussion in 'North Africa & the Med' started by Kuno, Dec 28, 2008.

  1. Kuno

    Kuno Very Senior Member

    Libya / Bir Hakeim; was it really important?

    I am sure that all forum members are more or less aware what happened around Bir Hakeim... not worth to repeat it hear in detail.

    However, just yesterday I read in a book about the French Foreign Legion that Bir hakeim was a "French Victory". First of all, it is a fact that the French would not have been able to hold out, if they would not have been constantly supplied by Commonwealth units (what is also a sliiiiiight indication that the place was somehow not under siege) and second - the French had finally to withdraw - so, as well the Axis may claim it as their victory. Fact remains that the place was hold against the Axis much longer than expected by the own and the enemy's leaders.

    But now my actual question: What was the real importance of the battle for Bir Hakeim in respect of the Axis attack? The French were in fact not able to really harrass the enemy advance but were more or less only a disturbing subject; maybe comparable to Tobruk a year earlier.

    Would like to read your opinion...
  2. Kuno

    Kuno Very Senior Member

    Hey, Guys - the French were fighting on your side; you should know about the subject ;-)
  3. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I think you are the only expert in this area Kuno :D

    Same for my Channel Islands thread...........No one had an opinion :(
  4. Kuno

    Kuno Very Senior Member

    Pitty; everybody has an opinion to the "big issues"... but you're right. The Channel Islands would be worth some thoughts as well. Islands are interesting in general. Somehow they did not fit into the real important operations. For example - Crete was in German hands until 1945! No clue how they could "survive"; I even read that long after the armisitce, the British have forced German soldiers (including tank-crews) to fight against communist partisans on Crete. Weird, isn't it?
  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I must admit The Channel Islands have never fallen into my remit of interest, probably due to the little coverage it gets on matters about WW2.

    I only posted the thread after reading about the allocation of troops to the islands in D-Day After the Battle. I thought the volume of troops would have served a better purpose on the mainland in defence of 'Fortress Europe'.

    The Crete thing you mention is a bit like the British using the Japanese after the war in the East finished.
  6. David Mawer

    David Mawer Member

    Old post from a period when the 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' were not too popular but....... oui, oui, oui it was very important. It was the first time that the Free French had fought the Germans in earnest since the Vichy regime was set up.

    Although not a 'victory' it served as a badly needed propaganda boost in the darkest hours of the war.

    Locally, as linchpin of the Gazala line, it caused Rommel to send the aid to the stalled Italian Ariete Division in the form of the Trieste Division and Africa Corps' own 90th Light Division, a delay which saved the British army from decimation and allowed Tobruk to prepare for its famous first siege.

    It also diverted enormous Luftwaffe resources which would have had a field day elsewhere attacking exposed retreating columns rather than foxholes in a rocky defensive position.

    Wasn't it Rommel himself who stated that this battle showed that 'the French to be the best soldiers after the Germans' (although in my opinion this may be a case of self-promotion)? To his credit he directly disobeyed Hitler's order to execute all Free French prisonners.

    A completely overlooked part of history in the anglophone world.

    As an aside, France celebrates it's aftermath in the not so bad film 'Taxi for Tobruk'.
    Last edited: May 7, 2017
  7. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    The same 35,000 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' of the French First Army that defended Lille for two days against a far superior enemy and undoubtedly helped to save thousands of British soldiers trying to escape at Dunkirk?

    And while we are on the subject of Dunkirk, the same 8,000 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' of the French 12 Motorised Division that defended the inner Dunkirk perimeter from the 29th May to the 4th June allowing a rather large part of the BEF to get away while they stayed behind to fight? Those 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' ?
    davidbfpo likes this.
  8. DavidW

    DavidW Well-Known Member

    I think you are getting muddled. Tobruk fell about a fortnight after Bir Hacheim following no siege at all.
  9. idler

    idler GeneralList

    It's OK, I think he's being ironic.

    The propaganda aspect was probably key as it wasn't just the Free French's first fight, we'd been actively fighting Vichy French forces for quite some time. We had to convince France as well as ourselves.
  10. David Mawer

    David Mawer Member

    De Gaulle was very happy about it all. (Cheese-eating surrender monkeys is meant to be sarcastic, by the way so nobody should be offended).
    And I didn't get it right about Tobruk....should have checked.
  11. spidge


    I thought the French were credited with these statements from what I have read!
    Winston Churchill renamed the Free French as the "Fighting French" and Hitler not Rommel called the Free French the second best fighters after the Germans. Propaganda used to the to the fullest by both sides.
  12. MarkN

    MarkN Well-Known Member

    French Troops were alongside British troops at Mersa el Brega when the Germans first advanced into Cyrenaica in March/April 1941. Ie. they, and the British, met the Germans for the first time in the desert alongside one another.

    Perhaps that wasn't sufficiently "in earnest" enough for you to mention. And it was British commanders who turned and 'withdrew at full speed' to Tobruk and further. The French, of course, accompanied them with their cheese and monkeys.
    davidbfpo likes this.
  13. Ramiles

    Ramiles Researching 9th Lancers, 24th L and SRY

    Bir Hakeim around the mid point (circa 15mins in) of this audio/podcast...

    'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys'? French Defeat in World War Two

    'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys'? French Defeat in World War Two
    It's the common recollection of French efforts to repel German invasion. But with 100,000 troops lost in the Battle of France, how true is the depiction of the French surrendering without a fight? How else might their contribution to, and experience of, the Second World War be remembered? Were the French a weak link, willing collaborators with the Nazis, brave resistance fighters or the Allied sacrifice to continuing the fight? Olivier Schmitt is a Professor of Political Science at the Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark. He joined James to talk through the many complex narratives of this section of the war, and how the predominant theories have developed over time.
    Chris C likes this.
  14. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

    The importance of Bir Hackeim was that because the Axis forces had to swing around it south and then north/east, extended their lines of communication to the extent that, had the Axis forces not been able to create a gap at Rotunda Ualeb on 1 June 1942 and thereby significantly shorten their lines of communication, the 8th Army would have defeated the Axis forces in the ‘Cauldron’.

    The 8th Army had fully expected the Axis forces to swing around the south of Bir Hackeim and the plan was for 8th Army armour to use the Axis supply deficiencies to strand it and then destroy its armour.

    Despite the deficiencies in the 8th Army armour and how it was used, it was only the Axis breakthrough the Gazala Line at Rotunda Ualeb that turned certain defeat into a resounding victory for them.
    Flamula likes this.
  15. Flamula

    Flamula Member

    Exactly as Steve Mac says.

    I would add that the British 150th Infantry Brigade had spent weeks fortifying Bir Hakeim, blowing loopholes in walls, digging ditches, machine-gun emplacements and laying thousands of mines. They were subsequently ordered to move up the line and hand over to the Free French who would enjoy the benefit of this fortification (and indeed it enabled them to hold out as long as they did). It was a poor swap for the 150th Brigade who found Rotunda Ualeb had not been much improved by return and was a far less defensible position. they also had less time to improve matters before Rommel turned up behind them.

    But as the southern tip of the Gazala line, even though Rommel had bypassed it, he couldn’t leave Bir Hakeim in the rear of his advance as it could pose a serious threat to his supply lines. The defense of Bir Hakeim, and the 150th brigade box on rotunda ualeb some 10 miles to the north caused serious threat and delay to his entire offensive. Unfortunately this wasn’t capitalised on by General Alexander and Ritchie who were a bit to indecisive, inactive and non-commital about the whole affair.

    But I think the fact that the Free French managed to essentially stage a successful breakout from the siege at the end could be seen somewhat as a victory. Much like the evacuation of Dunkirk, but on a far smaller scale.
    Chris C likes this.

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